Back in my high school days in a Utah mountain town, my friends and I got around in an old Datsun station wagon. To say it was held together with duct tape and baling wire would be a compliment: The odometer had rolled over 200,000 miles, the springs were shot and the tires were bald. The ignition had gone kaput; instead of replacing it, some creative mechanic had installed a button under the dashboard.
wasn’t much to look at, but that car took us places. I still
remember driving all night to get to a remote outpost of
Canyonlands National Park, dodging jackrabbits while a
battery-operated boom box blasted music from the camping gear piled
in the back seat.
Radio High Country News was a lot like
that. Nobody looking at the early operation would have guessed how
far it was going to travel. The show started on a whim in the
summer of 1998. KVNF, the public radio station here in Paonia,
Colo., needed money, and to attract that money, it needed to patch
the holes in its programming schedule.
“We could put
together a radio show about the West,” High Country News
staffers suggested. “How hard could it be?”
Famous last words. On our first show, Ed Marston, then HCN
publisher, acted as host. I was the engineer, since I’d been
doing an early-morning music show on KVNF and knew how to work the
sound board and the phones. Our very first guest was then Forest
Service Chief Mike Dombeck. Nothing like starting small.
don’t know that the word “fiasco” really captures
what followed. Ed read a prepared introduction to Dombeck, and to
the U.S. Forest Service, and to Gifford Pinchot, and to John Muir,
and … It lasted for 10 minutes, an eternity in radio time.
When Ed finally finished, he lobbed the first question to Dombeck,
who had joined via telephone from Washington, D.C. No response; the
phone line was dead. We managed to get the chief back on the line,
but the show deteriorated from there.
“It was a hilarious debut,” says Betsy Marston, then
editor of the newspaper, who quickly replaced Ed as radio host,
“but we thought, what the hell, if we can’t learn from
screwing up, we won’t learn.” (Needless to say, Ed and
Betsy had learned quite enough about my skills as an engineer; I
was fired on the spot, and sent back to the newspaper.)
Thus was born Radio High Country News, a homegrown production with
more character than know-how, and more naive “can-do”
spirit than a whole troop of Boy Scouts. The show eventually grew
into a polished weekly news magazine that aired on 32 public radio
stations around the West. But we had no idea how much heart, soul,
blood, sweat — and outright insanity — it would take to
get here from there.
The early shows were
literally patched together by producer Gabe Ross, who joined the
operation in the winter of 1998-99, straight from National Public
Radio in Washington, D.C., and an editorial internship at HCN. Gabe
knew just enough about radio to be a good coach for Betsy, who had
been editor of the newspaper for 15 years, and before that, a
television producer in New York. Gabe recorded interviews on an
aged reel-to-reel machine in the KVNF studios, and spent late
nights editing them with a razor blade and a roll of tape. To get
music into the show, he mixed it live, with help from longtime KVNF
staffer and musician Jeff Reynolds. The pinnacle of his Radio HCN
career, Gabe recalls, was a story about New Mexico rancher Jim
Catron, which Gabe and Jeff mixed with sounds of a Jeep’s
engine, wind in the grass, and Celtic music. “Every show, we
did something we hadn’t done before,” he says.
“Every show felt like two years of
Gabe left in the summer of
1999 to get a law degree in New York, and we hired Adam Burke to
take his place. Adam fit the bill perfectly: Brilliant. Highly
caffeinated. And completely oblivious to the fact that he was about
to undertake the impossible. He had a great ear for a story,
though, and a passion for wild places. He also had some experience
with public radio; he’d worked as the music director for KBUT
in Crested Butte.
Adam quickly set out to take Radio HCN
beyond KVNF’s few thousand listeners. Using a new computer
and sound-editing software, he wove the best of Gabe and
Betsy’s work into a pilot show, which he sent to astations
around Colorado. In short order, public radio stations in Boulder,
Carbondale and Grand Junction signed on, and Adam and Betsy went to
work producing a weekly half-hour show. They soon learned that the
show would never make it to the bigger stations unless they bumped
up production quality. Miraculously, Peggy Rawlins appeared. Peggy,
an environmental activist and arts advocate from Parachute, Colo.,
read about the radio show in the newspaper, came to Paonia and
promptly gave HCN the money to build a small studio. “She was
the angel,” Adam says.
Adam designed the studio
himself, based on what he’d learned from a book and the
Internet. “We had to build something that would withstand a
passing train,” he says; the Union Pacific tracks that carry
coal out of this valley sit just 100 yards from the HCN
It took most of the summer, but Adam and two local
carpenters built a double-walled, super-insulated sound box,
suspended above the floor on rubber pucks. It wasn’t pretty,
but it worked.
The technical hurdles were just the
beginning. After a year of working 80-hour weeks, Adam needed help.
In the spring of 2000, Ali Macalady came on board, the first in a
line of bright, fast-on-their-feet radio staffers that would
include Katie Oppenheimer, Catherine “Kit” Wiitanen,
April Reese, and finally, Krissy Clark and Maria
Of course, these people needed to be
paid. Peggy Rawlins gave the program a big push to get it started,
but we had to find a way to keep it going: we were digging into the
newspaper’s fast-diminishing reserves.
when the readers of High Country News came to the rescue. In 2001
and 2002, you donated more than $1 million to the Spreading the
News Campaign. That money kept the radio show alive, along with our
Web site and Writers on the Range column syndicate. Then in 2003,
we signed up our first radio underwriters — Mountainsmith,
which makes backpacks, sleeping bags and other outdoor gear, and
The New Belgium Brewery, which runs the world’s first
wind-powered brewery in Fort Collins, Colo.
quality and the reach of the show improved steadily, and it
eventually aired in 10 states. Those of you who were listeners know
how lively the interviews were. Betsy — and later Adam, who
took over as host in the fall of 2002 — spoke with authors,
activists, artists, politicians and everyone in between. They
brought Western characters to life in a way that’s impossible
to do on paper. “What I remember is the women,” Betsy
laughs. She spoke with writer Terry Tempest Williams, historian
Patricia Limerick and rancher Linda Hasselstrom, among
For Adam and Krissy, an interview with Native
American author Sherman Alexie stands out. The conversation, which
centered on Alexie’s movie, The Business of Fancydancing, was
yeasty. At one point, Alexie broke into the Carly Simon song,
“You’re So Vain,” ad-libbing, “I bet you
think this pow-wow’s about you, don’t
A good radio interview is “more than
just question, answer, question, answer,” says Adam.
“You’re dancing.” Even the worst interviews
sometimes turned out to be magical. Adam and Krissy interviewed
Bruce Eilert, a former Department of Defense biologist, planning to
discuss the military’s environmental ethics, or lack thereof.
Instead, Eilert wanted to tell his own story, about being harassed,
threatened and eventually fired for trying to protect the
endangered Sonoran pronghorn antelope. “I came out of the
booth feeling completely crushed,” says Adam. “But
Krissy said, ‘No, no — there’s something
there.’ ” Krissy spent a few long nights in the studio.
She cut out most of the high-minded Defense Department talk and
concentrated on Eilert’s personal story. “I would be
listening to the tape and at moments, I would almost want to
cry,” she says. “It was really a great feeling. Life
was happening on air.” “The best moments in radio have
been the moments of surprise,” says Adam, “when things
have crystallized around an individual human experience.”
The radio crew had the show running well, and
for a while, we felt like we were out in the fast lane, whipping
past some of the shinier vehicles on the airwaves.
“Everybody in the public radio world is trying to figure out
how to cover the West, how to tap into all these ears that have
suddenly moved here,” says Krissy. “It was fun to do a
story and then, a few days later, hear it on NPR and say,
‘Ha! We were there first.’ ”
the beefed-up staff, a satellite feed, and freelance radio
producers out in the field, the Spreading the News money began to
run thin. The underwriting dollars helped, but foundation money was
hard to come by. In early August, HCN Executive Director Paul
Larmer decided we could no longer sustain the program: The last
installment of Radio High Country News will air during the first
week in September.
“I was in San Francisco during
the dot-com boom, and sometimes I wonder if we had that same naive
energy,” says Krissy. “We beat it for a long time; we
beat the odds.”
Even though the odds eventually beat
back, Radio High Country News has changed High Country News for the
better. Radio forced us to speak to a broader audience and stay
up-to-the-minute with news. In these days of instant Internet
headlines, with more publications trying to cover “our”
issues, HCN has to be a “quick judo fighter,” as Adam
says. At the same time, we have to continue to provide the depth of
perspective on which we’ve built our reputation.
have a lot of people to be grateful to — to Adam, and to the
pack of radio producers who have worked slavishly for the past five
years. And, of course, we thank all of you, who have
“suspended disbelief to believe,” as the saying goes,
that a small Western newspaper could beat the odds and become a
multimedia organization. We’ll continue with the Web site,
Writers on the Range, and, of course, with the biweekly newspaper
that has covered the West for more than 30 years. And we have plans
to still do an occasional radio special. But for now, our
built-from-scratch radio studio will sit quiet, a testament to just
how far a dream can carry you.
Radio High Country News
original programs from Sept. 10, 2001, through Aug. 25, 2003, can
be heard on Real Audio at www.hcn.org/radio.jsp. Earlier programs
are available on CD. Call 800-905-1155.